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4/23/2010
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Top Secret U.S. Space Plane Launched

The Air Force will say only that the shuttle-style X-37B is "a flexible space test platform."

The U.S. Air Force successfully launched an unmanned space plane Thursday carrying an undisclosed payload.

The Air Force's Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), also known as the X-37B, lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 7:52 p.m. EDT. The ship, built by Boeing, was carried aloft by an Atlas V rocket launched by United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture.

The X-37B is a space shuttle-style craft that's designed to orbit the Earth and land through remote piloting. To date, the Air Force has said little about the spacecraft's purpose or payloads.

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A post on an official Air Force blog described the X-37B as "a flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments to allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment."

Some observers have theorized that the X-37B is meant to be an orbital platform for lasers or other weapons that could be used to knock out satellites belonging to hostile countries.

Whatever its purpose, the X-37B's successful launch by a consortium of private contractors could provide a boost for President Obama's plan to outsource some space missions and launches to the private sector.

The plan has drawn heat from some lawmakers, who claim it will cost jobs in states that support NASA launches and that launches are best left to the space agency's experts.

ULA officials, for their part, said Thursday's launch of the X-37B shows the efficiency of public-private partnerships.

"ULA is proud to have played a critical role in the success of this important test mission of the Orbital Test Vehicle," said Mark Wilkins, ULA's vice president for Atlas programs, in a statement.

"This was a tremendous launch campaign highlighted by close teamwork between the U.S. Air Force, the ULA launch team, and our many mission partners that made today's successful launch possible," said Wilkins.

ULA plans to launch the Air Force's Block II-F GPS satellite on May 20.

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